Federal prosecutors present closing arguments in Menendez trial

BY Briana Vannozzi, Senior Correspondent |

Federal prosecutors told the jury, Thursday, that Sen. Bob Menendez may have been elected to represent New Jersey, but instead he’s been Dr. Salomon Melgen’s personal United States senator. Justice Department Attorney J.P. Cooney started the day off asking jurors to “use common sense” in listening to final arguments and while reaching a verdict.

“The defense has tried really hard in this case to make everything seem more complicated than it really is,” he told jurors. “This is bribery. And this is what bribery looks like.”

Menendez and wealthy Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen face federal corruption and bribery charges. The defense says the two are longtime friends, like brothers, who do favors for each other. Prosecutors say the doctor used private flights, lavish vacations and hefty political contributions intended to influence the senator’s official actions. Those included arranging visas for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends, intervening with the State Department over a port security contract owned by Melgen and helping the doctor out of a nearly $9 million Medicare billing dispute. The government says Menendez intentionally failed to disclose those gifts on financial disclosure forms.

“If he revealed one [gift] the whole scheme would be unraveled,” said Cooney. Later adding, “Don’t let the defense use their friendship for a camouflage for their bribery.”

To prove their argument, prosecutors laid out a timeline showing the free flights on Melgen’s private jet didn’t start until Menendez became a U.S. senator, despite their already decade-long friendship. And, pointed to political contributions that were requested, but not made by Melgen until Menendez came through on issues like the port security contract, “threatened” to hold a committee hearing on State Department officials if they failed to help.

Melgen’s defense team called the timeline inconsistent. “They just took a look at dates, emails and partial facts and said, ‘We’re going to weave our own story to fit how we want the narrative to be and ignore the facts.'”

Menendez wasn’t taking the flights or trips alone, they told jurors. He was with the respective families, relaxing and bonding, like any friends do. Defense attorney Kirk Ogrosky asked jurors why Melgen would hire teams of attorneys every time he had a problem and wait many months before asking Menendez to help. He ran into a roadblock with the DEP on a project where he invested millions, but never once asked for Menendez to step in, he argued, saying the instances used by the prosecution were taken out of context.

In the courtroom Thursday, there were about a dozen members of the clergy to offer support. Hudson County Sen. Brian Stack also stayed for the duration. During a break, Menendez joined in a prayer circle with interfaith leaders in a quiet moment amid a chaotic day.

His lawyers will present their closing arguments on Monday, when the jury is expected to begin deliberation.